America’s nuclear energy future

By Bernd Debusmann
June 17, 2011

In his inaugural address on January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama promised that “we’ll restore science to its rightful place.” Mark that down as a broken promise, as far as a key element of America’s nuclear energy future is concerned.

Obama’s remark on science was a swipe at his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose administration was frequently criticized, often with good reason, for allowing ideology to trump science on subjects as varied as stem cell research, the morning-after birth control pill and the environment.

In contrast, Obama’s most prominent move to shelve a major scientific project — The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository — has been driven not by ideology but by a toxic combination of Nimbyism (from “not in my backyard”), electoral politics and high-handed leadership of America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That combination led to the closure of a project that, over its long gestation period, involved more than 2,500 scientists and has so far cost $15 billion.

Power-generation and nuclear waste are not usually subjects of great public interest but they made headlines and sparked renewed debate in the wake of last March’s nuclear accident in Japan, where spent fuel rods (nuclear waste) posed a greater radiation threat than the core of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Those rods were stored in pools of constantly circulating water — the system used at most U.S. nuclear plants — and dangerously overheated when an earthquake interrupted power supply to the pools.

Over the past few weeks, the steadily increasing waste from more than 100 nuclear reactors and the repository once meant to hold most of it deep underground, have been the subject of a string of reports and congressional hearings. They shed light not only on the need for a decision on what best to do with the waste but also on the fact that science on this issue has not been restored to the “rightful place” Obama promised in his eloquent inaugural speech.

According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 75,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are now held at sites scattered around the country, an amount that is expected to double by 2055. What’s the best option to storing these hazardous substances? “A geologic repository is widely considered the only currently feasible option for permanently disposing nuclear waste,” the GAO’s leading expert on energy matters, Mark Gaffigan, told a Congressional subcommittee.

It was called in response to a report by the GAO, the research arm of Congress, which discussed several options for storing nuclear waste and spelled out the reason the Department of Energy shut down Yucca mountain — not because it was deemed unsafe but because it lacked public support in Nevada. That’s not surprising — Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, has waged a relentless campaign for more than two decades to kill the project, saying it was unsafe. That’s his opinion, not universally shared by scientists.

HIGH-COST ELECTORAL VOTES

When he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama came down on the side of Reid, a stand that helped him beat his Republican rival John McCain, the Arizona senator firmly in favor of Yucca, and win the hotly contested state’s five electoral votes. Again, politics trumped science. Those five votes must count among the most expensive in American electoral history. Soon after taking office, Obama pulled the plug on Yucca mountain by writing it out of the budget. The project’s offices in Las Vegas were shut, the staff fired.

Up on the mountain, 4,950 feet from the Mojave desert, on the edge of a former nuclear test site 95 miles from Las Vegas, the gate has been closed to the entry of the five-mile tunnel drilled into the mountain to serve as a graveyard for nuclear waste.

But the project isn’t quite dead, yet. There is a pending lawsuit by the states of South Carolina and Washington against the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their argument: Yucca was a congressionally mandated program (the legislation dates back to 1982) and cannot be killed by administrative fiat. While a Washington appeals court ponders the issue, a Blue Ribbon Commission set up last year continues to ponder “recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.”

The commission, which has until next January to complete its work, came up with draft recommendations in May. They include this one: “The United States should proceed expeditiously to develop one or more permanent deep geological facilities for the safe disposal of high-level nuclear waste … Geologic disposal in a mined repository is the most promising and technically accepted option available for safely isolating high-level nuclear wastes for very long periods of time.”

In other words: Something just like Yucca as long as it’s not Yucca. The commission did not say in whose backyard they were looking to open such a site.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com.

9 comments

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[...] Obama and toxic waste, toxic politics  By David Hendee [...]

Sort of like the father who promised his children Santa would be bringing their Christmas wishes…only to find out his hours at work are being cut and he won’t be able to afford to pay the mortgage.

Obama has had to slog uphill on every issue since taking office.

Who knew the Great Recession would be so bad for so long for so many?

Who knew revenues would fall so short while such drastic measures would be needed to keep the economy from falling into Depression?

Had Obama been handed the economy of 2001, as was handed to W. Bush, I think there would be many things that would have been kept on the Christmas list.

So “another broken campaign promise” to add to the list, given the circumstances…no surprise, really.

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

NobleKin- while I agree that Bush messed things up really bad, I fail to see how Obama would have been any different. Both support easy money and stimulus plans, which is precisely what got us, and is keeping us, in this mess. Both have initiated wars that have cost much more than originally quoted and both have extended the Federal govt’s power at the expense of a much higher deficit (Bush with Dept of Ed and Obama with healthcare). People can argue Republican vs. Democrat all they want; once in power they do the exact same thing. So spare me the “if Obama were handed the economy in ’01″ argument, we’d be in the same shape we are now.

Posted by elgecko84 | Report as abusive

Getting Yucca back on line would save billions in energy costs, so you’re argument makes NO sense. Shutting Yucca down costs us a ton of money in the long run, so Obama’s decision to shut it down just makes the recession even worse. This has nothing to do with George Bush, but I know you’ll keep trying.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive

This all begs the question of “why go nuclear?” There is NO solution to the problem of nuclear waste, plus extracting uranium requires tons of fossil fuels and nuclear plants make great targets for terrorists. We’d be far better off, and getting far more jobs generated, if we just made a full transition to sustainable energy sources.

Posted by StephanLarose | Report as abusive

This is one of many recent articles, which based on empty accusations, appears to be sponsored by the nuclear power industry. Not one of the recent articles have allowed the Reid position to offer it’s side of the story. It seems more like a hit piece. http://reid.senate.gov/issues/yucca.cfm
  Even after a couple hours on the NRC website, straight answers about the repository cannot be found there either. It is not surprising that no one wants a mountain of nuclear waste threatening their drinking water. The thousands of years required to hold this waste means that no guarantees could be made about what might happen in periods of time that are at least 10 times longer than the recorded history of mankind. Even our best technology cannot assure containment over these time spans. Then it is further complicated by the fact that we already have more waste than could be stored in the repository, so we will need more and more sites as time goes on.

The people all around the world, have shown in polls that around 2/3 of the populations on average, do not want to continue nuclear power. The industry after 60 years is not competitive financially with other methods without constant cash infusions from the same public that does not want nuclear power. that is in normal operations, when we consider the costs of the disasters , we would have been ahead to just give free power to the citizens, and even that would cost less than society has paid for nuclear power. It is easy to understand the guilt from nuclear bombs used by the US resulting in the effort to show some social value for nuclear technology. But all we have is widespread misery and increased cancer and birth defects to show for it.
We will never be free of these dangers until we stop using nuclear power for electricity production. With today’s technology, we have so many ways to make electricity, there is no need or reason to continue nuclear power.

Posted by aligatorhardt | Report as abusive

If history is any guide, read these two paragraphs from a report nine years ago. – “The decision of whether to approve and license the site now rests with President Bush. Should Bush approve the site, Nevada’s only recourse would be an appeal to Congress asking lawmakers to override the president’s action.

Since the Yucca Mountain dump site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas was singled out by Congress 15 years ago, Nevada’s government and a majority of the state’s citizens have opposed the plan. Nevada legislators contend that no other sites were considered by the U.S. Congress, because lawmakers from more populace states did not want nuclear waste in their states.” About.com Jan 12, 2002)
It does not appear to take more than the President’s hand to decide the fate of this project. It also seems unjust at least to place the nuclear graveyard in the very state that makes their feelings about fission known by the number of reactors they use – none

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

Excellent analysis. The only thing I would like to mention, in addition to the commentary, is related to the selection of Harry Reid’s prior staff in the Obama appointees. Obama appointed the current NRC chairman who had worked prior to his appointment as a staff member with Harry Reid.

Harry Reid seems to be the “man behind the curtain” on too many of Obama’s decision. Our President is more of a theatrical prop where the lines are really being written in Chicago and Las Vegas: two areas notorious for politics and crime.

All great civilizations crumble when the combination becomes too pervasive. Strangely, it’s only obvious in historical reflection.

Evidently we did not lose enough in the banking and real estate adventure. The game continues.

Posted by me2011 | Report as abusive

It appears that ‘We the People” are all farm animals in our little pens(Nevada, South Carolina and all the other States) and that our benefactors have little regard for the us. Just look at the ecological messes in Hanover Washington., Savannah Ga., Oak Ridge Tn. from WWII uranium enrichment plants. In December of 2008 the town of Kingston Tn. was buried in fly ash slurry from a failed fly ash containment pool dating back to the 1930s from a coal fired power plant. This disaster was worse than the Exxon Valdez, yet Homeland Security kept it and 40 plus other potentially dangerous slurry pen sights a secret from the public for years. Only when a freedom of information challenge was brought in Federal Court by the Sierra Club, some Congressmen, Congresswomen and others was this disaster finally made public. StephanLarose,you have hit the nail squarely on the head.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

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